How would Cubs approach this offseason if they hadn't won the 2016 World Series?

How would Cubs approach this offseason if they hadn't won the 2016 World Series?

Look, we're not trying to rewrite history and take a championship AWAY from the Chicago Cubs. 

But it's an interesting thought experiment — how would the Cubs approach this winter if they didn't already have those World Series rings stashed away in their trophy cases or safety deposit boxes?

Would Tom Ricketts and ownership be more likely to throw away the budget and payroll concerns and give Theo Epstein a bunch of blank checks? Would Epstein's front office feel an urgency to wheel and deal or go hard after the top free agents like Bryce Harper? Would they be among the teams most interested in trading for Madison Bumgarner or Edwin Diaz? Would Joe Maddon still be the skipper?

Without that rain delay, if Albert Almora Jr. had not tagged up from first base on a fly ball or if Ben Zobrist's grounder was simply hit right at Jose Ramirez instead of a few feet toward the line, the entire tone and narrative around this winter would be totally different for the Cubs. (To be fair, everything over the last two years would be different in Cub Nation.)

All the talk about the need to weigh production over potential would be full-on shouts if the Cubs were going on 111-plus years of World Series drought.

But, obviously, none of those "ifs" are true. The Cubs did win the World Series in 2016 and the organization certainly doesn't forget that (nor will they ever).

That championship bought Epstein and Co. some well-deserved patience, but it also changed the mentality and expectations, for better or for worse.

"Look, we've won more games than any team in baseball the last four years, we're coming off a 95-win season that ordinarily would leave us in a different mindset just based off the win totals," Epstein said earlier this month. "I don't want to pile on. There are amazing things continuing to happen in this organization, but I think some of it is how to handle success — the greatest quest in sports and accomplishing it at such a young age and it was so sudden.

"...I think there are some things that we can do better in terms of how we approach winning day-to-day, what you need to do from Day 1 through Day 162 and then through October to win. I don't want to get into specifics — and I'm not pointing fingers because I'm intricately involved in this, too — but I know from talking to our players in full candor that we all feel the same way."

Sure, the Cubs shrugged off the World Series hangover enough to make it all the way to the NLCS again in 2017 and woke up on the morning of the final day of the 2018 regular season with the best record in the National League, but any talk of a potential dyansty with this team was clearly premature. 

Like Epstein said, the Cubs have more wins than any other team in baseball since the start of the 2015 season, yet they still have only one ring and now we're on the back half of the projected 7-year window of contention.

The Cubs won't actually trade Kris Bryant right now, but the rumors this winter highlighted an important point — the clock is ticking. Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Javy Baez all have just three years left in a Cubs uniform while Yu Darvish is the only pitcher under contract beyond 2020 with no clear options in the pipeline (except maybe Adbert Alzolay).

That doesn't mean the sky is falling and the Cubs could obviously still wind up with multiple World Series rings with this core of players. But there's also an urgency now both despite and because of that magical fall of 2016.

"This time is precious," Epstein said. "We're all part of this group that has enough talent to win the World Series and we don't want to waste it. We don't want to look back with any regret that there are things we could've done differently in our preparation or in our work habits or in our attitudes that we brought to the park each day.

"We want to really attack the season with a winning mentality from Day 1 and I'll just leave it at that."

Would the Cubs have lacked a sense of urgency and "edge" in 2018 if they were still on the greatest quest in sports? Probably not, but it's impossible to say. 

The confidence and winning culture the Cubs have developed over the last few seasons worked against them, in a way, in 2018 as they just assumed they'd be OK in the end no matter what kind of adversity popped up along the way. 

And they almost were. It took an incredible surge from the Brewers to catch the Cubs in the division and even took a Game 163 playoff to surpass Baez and Co. 

The Cubs want to get back to that mindset, attitude and approach they had in 2016 — a chip on their shoulder to resolve their unfinished business.

In that prism, being eliminated the way they were might've been the best thing for these Cubs.

"I think everyone in the organization in some form or another expected to be getting back to a fourth straight NLCS," Epstein said, "and no matter what we were up against with the schedule or the injuries or us not hitting for half a season or the Brewers going on an epic run, there was still this belief because — quote — 'We're the Cubs and we have this much talent and we've always come through before, that we'd find a way and we'd look up and we'd be in a fourth straight NLCS.'

"And I think when it doesn't happen and it stops so suddenly and you walk off the field, you have better perspective to evaluate some of the reasons why this time we did not achieve our goal."

That "pissed off" feeling is creating its own sense of urgency this winter — a wake-up call and reminder that this organization cannot rest on its laurels.

But that doesn't mean the Cubs have to feel pressure to overreact this winter. The Cubs have already made some major changes on their coaching staff and there's a legit case to be made that patience is the more prudent path compared to an aggressiveness in regards to potential roster shakeups. There's no longer a dark cloud of "Cubbie Occurrences" or "curses" hanging over this team.

On the one hand, 2016 seems so long ago. But on the other, it is still fresh enough in everybody's mind and there are enough players and coaches and front office members around to help the team duplicate the on-mission environment from Day 1. There's still more than enough talent on this roster to add to the trophy case.

"We didn't really answer the bell the first half of the [2017] season and this past year, there were moments where we were complacent, where we felt we had chances to put away the division," Epstein said. "I think we all felt in the end, we'd be talented enough where it would happen and it didn't. 

"That's on us and we have to own that and we need to change it. That's a real focus for us this winter and it has been and will continue to be as well as player personnel and doing everything we can to find the right mix."

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Kris Bryant takes in Tiger-Phil golf match in Las Vegas


Kris Bryant takes in Tiger-Phil golf match in Las Vegas

The Tiger Woods-Phil Mickelson golf match took place in Las Vegas so naturally Kris Bryant took advantage of the big event in his hometown.

Bryant was in the gallery for the pay-per-view $9 million match at Shadow Creek Golf Club in North Las Vegas.

He tweeted out an image of Tiger before the match started.

Bryant was later spotted on the broadcast, getting a close-up of Tiger lining up a putt. That's Bryant in the blue sweatshirt with his phone out right behind Tiger's right shoulder:

Not bad for offseason entertainment.

Cubs understand there is no 'silver bullet' to fix offense for 2019

Cubs understand there is no 'silver bullet' to fix offense for 2019

The Cubs aren't sharing exactly how they plan on ensuring their offense doesn't break in 2019. 

Which makes sense: Why make your adjustments and gameplans public months before the season even starts?

But the tone about the lineup has changed a bit since the Cubs managed just one run in 13 innings against the Colorado Rockies in the National League Wild-Card Game last month.

The day after that disappointing end to the season, Theo Epstein was honest and straightforward about the lackluster Cubs offense and his comments teased the potential for a lot of change to the lineup this winter.

The comments from Epstein's front office have softened since then as they realize the need for patience right now. After all, there's still plenty of reason to be excited about all these young hitters. 

It's entirely possible — maybe even likely — that 2018 will go down as the worst season in the respective careers of Kris Bryant and Willson Contreras and it's not as if guys like Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ suddenly lost their power stroke even if their homer totals took a dip. 

And even though the Cubs aren't interested in putting all the blame on former hitting coach Chili Davis, they still felt like he simply didn't mesh with some of the players and wasted no time making a change on Joe Maddon's staff.

"Obviously we didn't hit for as much power as we did the year before," GM Jed Hoyer said earlier this month. "Blaming that or assigning that to a hitting program is dangerous. Everyone likes homers — it's not like anyone is preaching not to hit homers. We couldn't really pinpoint exactly why we didn't hit the second half of the season. And there's no silver bullet, I don't think, to fix that.

"But obviously we made a change with Chili. Chili's a great hitting coach, but for our group, we felt like returning to some of our roots and going back and getting [new hitting coach Anthony] Iapoce is the right thing to do. But it is difficult.

"Our individual players themselves in many instances struggled — how much of that is based on a hitting program and how much of that is based on individual struggles? That's what we're trying to figure out."

There may not be a silver bullet to solve the Cubs' hitting woes, but there are certainly areas that could make a huge difference instantly. A free agent market packed with hitters like Bryce Harper, Manny Machado and Josh Donaldson provides plenty of options for the Cubs to upgrade their lineup.

If the current financial landscape takes the Cubs out on those big fish, there are other established veterans out there who may settle for a more reasonable contract (think: Nick Markakis). 

Then there's the trade market, where the Cubs could shake up their lineup by dealing for a different type of hitter that may fit better in an offense with a lot of boom-or-bust type players.

Of course, there's also the patience approach.

"I feel really comfortable where we are with our offense," Hoyer said. "I mean, you look around the diamond — all the guys have performed in different years exceptionally well. They're still young. It's about getting that group to gel as a group.

"In the second half, we kinda cratered. A number of guys underperformed. I think we have a plenty good offense if we don't add another hitter. That being said, we'll look around; we'll certainly have discussions, but our focus really is on our own guys."

Even with their own guys and all the first-round picks on the roster, the Cubs still felt the need to trade for Daniel Murphy in August and wound up playing him almost every day down the stretch because of how important they felt his bat/approach was to the lineup. In 2017, Jon Jay provided a lift and in 2016, it was Dexter Fowler and the veteran combination of David Ross and Miguel Montero at catcher. 

The Cubs figure to add at least one veteran hitter to this lineup for 2019 — a guy that can offer a consistent approach and deliver a quality at-bat. And they're also considering deploying a more stable lineup, which could help all those young hitters. 

But the major difference for this offense will be about a return to health for Bryant and guys like Contreras, Schwarber, Happ and Albert Almora Jr. taking a step forward and making the necessary adjustments.

So what have the Cubs learned about that late-season offensive downturn?

"We were assessing it every day as it was going on, so it's not like you sit down and find out all the answers," Epstein said at the MLB GM Meetings. "But I think through some of the exit interviews, I definitely learned some things. Some of the stuff I don't want to talk about publicly before we make some adjustments and roll it out for the players, but I think in general terms, the deeper we dug, the more we realized we have a ton of talent offensively with the position players group. Which — in a lot of ways — should be the strength of this team. 

"...For a few different reasons, it fell apart down the stretch and we weren't able to make an adjustment and pull ourselves out of it. Some of it was just mechanical or approach adjustments that need to be made and some of it was environmental. 

"And I will say we've already had three players — when I walk down to the clubhouse, I keep hearing balls being smacked off the tee and guys taking batting practice already — which I don't know if it's a good sign or a bad sign. I like what it means about the work ethic and how serious these guys are about getting better and making some adjustments and remembering that feeling about what it's like to walk off the field after losing the Wild-Card Game. 

"I don't know what it means about rest, so we gotta — and we are — making sure guys don't start too soon because I think we have a lot of players eager to have a really productive winter and come back better next year."